Keith Ellison dishes on goatees, health care and birthday cupcakes


Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) and I sat down at a coffee shop near his congressional office in Minneapolis to talk. I wanted to find out his take on health care reform, what’s coming up in Congress and see “the goatee” for myself.

“I started it over August recess last year,” Keith said. “You know, just didn’t shave for a couple of days. Then shaved my cheeks. Nobody said anything about it, nobody said ‘it’s gotta go,’ so I’ve kept it.” Including his wife, Kim.

After getting the discussion of facial hair out of the way, we got to the biggest question on everybody’s mind regarding Congress: health care reform.

“You can’t arouse people’s imaginations for a year straight and then not do something,” Keith explained. “I think we’re going to do something. I think we’re going to use reconciliation.”

“Look, social security and Medicare were smaller at first,” he continued. “They expanded it after they passed it.”

Keith’s biggest beef with the Republicans over health care reform is that they “haven’t played it straight the whole time.”  In his view, they are doing everything they can to protect the profits of the corporations over the needs of Americans.

“Once we’ve passed it, people will like it and they’ll want more,” he explained. We talked about their strategy to stop health care reform, which hasn’t really changed since the 1950s; call is socialism.

“Republicans and I agree on one thing about health care reform and the public option,” Keith stated. “We both know that it will cut into the profits of the health insurance industry.”

I asked about the Congressional Progressive Caucus which now numbers about 100. How is healthcare reform sitting with members, and how will the hard line that members originally took play out?

First of all, Keith and many others in the caucus will be voting for some kind of reform. They would prefer that the public option were included, but “but I’m not siding with the Republicans on this”  is Keith’s view.

“We progressives need to evolve,” Keith said. “Watcha gonna do? What’s this generation of progressives going to do? Vote against our one chance for health care reform?”

“We’re all a bunch of sprinters,” he continued. “Quick off the blocks, but we need some marathon runners.”

The implication is that we know how to win elections, but aren’t so good at getting things done once we win. It’s simply a matter of exercising power once we get it.

“Bush didn’t need 60 votes,” Keith explained. Actually, VP Cheney often broke ties. And yet we can’t pass anything out of the Senate with 55 senators that would vote for a public option.

The Senate has a radically different mentality than the House, Keith explained to me. There’s a certain anonymity to be one of 435, but Keith said that many senators are friends with other senators despite the fact that they are politically opposite.

“I never get confused about the personal and the political,” Keith said. “Look, I can remember Karl Rove talking to my teenage sons at a White House event (during the Bush years). They got their pictures taken with him to show their friends. He’s a nice person … you know that everyone says that Bush is really nice and it’s true.”

Okay. Nice. But a bit dim.

“You know that the bridge collapsed on my birthday, don’t you?” Keith asked. I didn’t. “We were all on the plane to Minneapolis. The whole Minnestoa delegation, Bush, Rove.”

“Well, Bush and Rove walk up to me carrying a cupcake with a candle in it. They led everybody in singing “Happy Birthday” to me.”

Despite that nice gesture, Keith is still going to oppose everything they stand for.

Returning to the progressive movement, Keith emphasized that we progressives cannot “cannabalize” each other or our movement over one vote or one issue.

I recall him saying this in regards to his first Iraq War vote. He voted to continue the funding, angering the peace community. He held a town hall forum in which everyone got to state their opinions. This is the same message as then.

The bottom line is that, in my opinion, we can count on Keith to represent progressives. When he has tough votes, when he decides to compromise, he’s going to let us know. He’s going to continue to interact with us because he’s one of us … just one of us who’s gotten elected to higher office.

We moved on to talking about the climate bill. The House passed its version of the climate change bill, and we’re all waiting for the Senate to take action on this.

Keith is concerned that the Senate “do it right.”  One particular issue that concerns him is nuclear energy.

“If I came to you as an investor,” Keith began. “And I said, listen, you won’t have to invest a penny, but you’ll make money, you’d go for it, right?”

This is what the Obama Administration is doing by promising $8 billion to build to reactors in Georgia. The government has to guarantee the insurance as no insurer will cover a nuke plant.

Think of how much we could do if we spent $8 billion on real alternative energy.

“Nuclear energy isn’t just about the carbon,” Keith said. In other words, we have to temporarily store then transport and permanently store spent nuclear fuel rods. All three of these parts of the nuclear plant life cycle are very hazardous.

Next we talked about the economy. Would there be another stimulus bill?

“I hope so,” Keith replied.

The House has passed a $150 billion stimulus bill and the Senate is considering a $80 billion one.

“More than half of the House bill is spending on transit,” Keith said. “That’s a lot of jobs it’d create.”

“What we need is a WPA-type bill,” he continued. “I’ve introduced a bill that will do just that. It’d spend $40 billion to put people to work just like the WPA did.”

There are a lot of people in north Minneapolis who are unemployed. It could even approach 25 percent if you consider all the people who’ve stopped even looking for work. This would help the people in the Sixth district, too. The Iron Range as well.

Finally, Keith hopes that Congress will address immigration. He sees a consensus building with the Chamber of Commerce, hi-tech industries and labor. He believes that these disparate groups are starting to see that the US needs a thought-out, coherent immigration policy.  

When I looked incredulous and asked if this really could happen in an election year, Keith shrugged and said he really hoped so.